Posted by: rcottrill | March 31, 2014

Softly, Now, the Light of Day

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Words: George Washington Doane (b. May 27, 1799; d. April ___, 1859)
Music: Seymour, by Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber (b. Nov. 18, 1786; d. June 5, 1826)

Wordwise Hymns (George Doane)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Von Weber was a classical composer. The hymn tune was taken from his opera Oberon. As noted in the Cyber Hymnal, the tune Mercy is also used with this hymn (and with Holy Ghost, with Light Divine).

George Doane (1799-1859) was christened George Washington Doane, as he was born in the year America’s beloved first president died. A scholar and college professor, in addition he became a bishop in the Episcopal (or Anglican) denomination. A bishop who succeeded him wrote of Doane:

“He was a pioneer in the work of education, ahead of his time in a good many things, and his name is remembered not by the troubles he was compelled to face, but by his greatness as a man and a bishop.

D r. Doane published a book of poetry in 1824 called Songs by the Way. In the volume was an 1824 hymn poem called “Evening,” written for St. Mary’s Hall, a girls’ seminary founded by Bishop Doane. The hymn was headed by the text:

“Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141:2).

Sometimes, in the bustle of our busy lives, there’s an almost constant din falling on our physical ears, all but drowning out the voice of God to our souls. Filling every waking moment of our days with sound seems to be the modern trend. And unfortunately, that is often the adopted norm in the services of the church. Moments of personal meditation and silent waiting on God must seem to some a boring waste of time. But in contrast, God says in His Word, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

One of the common events in nature through which God has much to say to us is sunsets. A sunset marks the end of another day. That is an appropriate time for reflection. Did we invest its hours and minutes for God? Or did sinful weakness cause us to stumble, bringing Him dishonour? As the Lord sought to walk with our first parents in the cool evening of Eden (Gen. 3:8-9), so He desires to meet with us. But if we, like Adam and Eve, have failed Him, perhaps we are more reluctant to draw near.

There’s another significance of the sunset as well. It is a picture and a reminder of death. Just as we speak of the sunset of day, we sometimes refer to the sunset of life. And there is sometimes about death a dread of approaching darkness. It is “the valley of the shadow.” But believers are assured of the presence of the Lord, even then (Ps. 23:4), and of the coming of an even brighter sunrise. He is “the Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). In the dawning of eternal day “the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2).

Notice how the hymn gives an atmosphere of intimacy with God, by using the first person in the opening stanza. Doane’s meditation on the silent approach of nightfall begins:

CH-1) Softly now the light of day
Fades upon my sight away;
Free from care, from labour free,
Lord, I would commune with Thee.

CH-2) Thou, whose all pervading eye
Naught escapes, without, within,
Pardon each infirmity,
Open fault, and secret sin.

Finally, the hymn makes the connection to life’s final sunset (again using the first person):

CH-3) Soon for me the light of day
Shall forever pass away;
Then, from sin and sorrow free,
Take me, Lord, to dwell with Thee.

Some hymn books omit CH-4. It does seem to me somewhat anticlimactic, as CH-3 makes a good ending to the hymn. It may also be poetically inferior to the first three, but I’ll include it here.

CH-4) Thou who, sinless, yet hast known
All of man’s infirmity;
Then, from Thine eternal throne,
Jesus, look with pitying eye.

1) What other times or events, other than sunsets, often prompt us to introspection–looking back, and looking ahead?

2) What is your favourite evening hymn (or hymn for the closing of a church service)?

Wordwise Hymns (George Doane)
The Cyber Hymnal


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